The Panthers’ stunning victory in Week 2 put them at the top of the NFC South, and they remain in first place heading into their latest meeting with the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers.
Few could have expected Tampa Bay to be two games behind Carolina, which finished in last place in 2002, at the halfway point of the season.
“We’re dealing with where we are right now and beginning to prepare for Tampa Bay,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “They don’t pick them at halftime, just like they don’t make final scores at halftime. It really means nothing at this point.”
The Panthers have not relinquished first place in the NFC South since their shocking 12-9 win at Tampa Bay on Sept. 14. Carolina blocked three kicks, including Martin Gramatica’s extra-point attempt with no time left in regulation that would have won the game for the Bucs. John Kasay kicked the game-winning field goal with 3:28 left in overtime.
Carolina’s Stephen Davis ran for 142 yards in that win and is the NFC’s leading rusher, but he might not be available for this crucial matchup. Davis missed his third straight day of practice Friday, and the team will wait until Sunday to decide whether he’ll play.
“I think there has been improvement as the week has wore on,” Fox said Friday. ”(But) we’re not going to do anything wrong as far as what is in the best interest of Stephen. If he’s ready, he’s ready. If he’s not himself, we’ll hold him out.”
Upon the announcement of the injury on Wednesday, Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp was certain Davis’ ankle would be healed in time to play.
“That’s just enough to get you through Wednesday and Thursday without being killed on the practice field,” Sapp said. “We’re dying to see Stephen.”
If Davis can’t go, DeShaun Foster will get the start. The second-year back rushed for 85 yards and added 54 receiving while filling in for Davis in the second half of Carolina’s win over Indianapolis on Oct. 12.
Both teams are looking to bounce back from disappointing defeats.
Despite Davis rushing for 153 yards to set a team record with his sixth 100-yard game of the season, the Panthers blew a lead in the fourth quarter and lost 14-10 to the Houston Texans last week.
“We set a goal to go 3-1 in each quarter,” Fox said. “The math on that is 6-2 after eight (games). We did it a little bit different than the prescribed way, but at the end of the day we are 6-2.”
Tampa has to be considered a disappointment by being just .500 at the midway point, having yet to put together back-to-back wins.
The Buccaneers are coming off a 17-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints.
Brad Johnson completed 27 of 46 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the fourth quarter. The Bucs’ rally came up short as the Saints’ John Carney kicked the game-winning 47-yard field goal with 8 seconds left.
“If you’re going to be a survivor in life, or a survivor in pro football, you’ve got to take the good with the bad,” Bucs coach Jon Gruden said.
“We’re all sick. But at the same time, I think we’re all encouraged by the fight in this football team. … I wish we could play better, and we’ve got to coach better, certainly. But the heart, the drive, is there.”
Tampa’s defense still ranks first in the NFC and second in the league with just 14.3 points allowed per game.
That unit will be facing improving quarterback Jake Delhomme, who may have a new weapon at his disposal.
Wideout Kevin Dyson made his first appearance at Panthers practice Wednesday after tearing his Achilles’ tendon in the spring. Dyson had been one of Steve McNair’s favorite targets in Tennessee before signing with Carolina as a free agent during the offseason.
Dyson feels he can play Sunday, and Fox, though still cautious, would not rule it out.
“Never say never,” Fox said. “He hadn’t been playing a long time, so it’s going to take a lot of time to get him ready. But he’s coming along good.”
Receiver Steve Smith leads the team with 43 catches and 573 yards, but has irritated management several times—most recently in last Sunday’s loss with a costly personal foul for kicking a Houston player.